By Francesca Quaratino, specialist in in Ethics of Artificial Intelligence and Information Philosophy
Analyse no. 2, juin|June 2020
The latest technologies multifaceted relationship between man and machines becomes increasingly complex.
If for Günther Anders, the essential problems of the human condition (Die Antiquiertheit des Menschenare, 1956), are the construction of the atomic bomb and the appearance of the television, in the 21st century the problem of humanity is human/machine interactions.
The emergence of the digital has radically changed every aspect of life. The rapid pace of technology has redesigned space-time categories, and the interaction with the network has created new “onlife” identities (Floridi, 2017, p.67).
Hybridization with the digital sphere seems to have no limits anymore. We are completely immersed in a digitized and computerized environment. Social networks further strengthen social relationships and we perceive devices as a second skin, eliminating any distance between man and machine, and instead fortifying interconnection.
The relationship with devices is so deep, that human beings want to achieve the same level of performance as machines they consider as highly efficient. Indeed, a computer can store millions of data, can quickly translate a text, can perform complex calculations, and recharge in a few hours. Inebriated by these performances humans try to enhance their bodies to achieve the same level of efficiency. How is that feasible? What really distinguishes humans from machines in terms of performances?
The simple structure of algorithms
Computers are historically traceable back to the Turing Machine (TM).
The TM was initially intended to apply a formal and mechanical procedure to perform a given task (e.g. adding numbers) “through quintuple instructions indicating: the initial state; the symbol he is reading; the action it must take; moving along the ribbon; the final state assumed once the action over” (Di Francesco, 2015, p. 138, author’s translation). The machine manages to perform symbolic and linguistic schemes, but in order to be able to successfully decipher and perform an operation, it is necessary to make things “clear, immediate, unambiguous, and finished” (Sorce, 2009, author’s translation).
One further step can help to understand how the current computer is a “child” of TM.
TM has revolutionized human thinking and actions, and has made it possible to carry out complex operations in a simple way. From individual functions, we have switched to a programmable machine equipped with memory (central calculation unit – CPU) in which data and programs are processed simultaneously, and are even able to generate other programs. This model, called the Von Neumann architecture, forms the TM, the structural basis of the modern computer.
Machines do not act with awareness and choices made are attributable to a simple sequence of number. Algorithms do not feel any emotion, and do not allow circumstances to interfere with their own work. As Benasayag claims it, “artifacts do not act” (2016, p.141, author’s translation), neither do they transform what they have memorized. For these reasons, algorithms can be labelled as decontextualized, meaning that they perform in a neutral and aseptic way without following principles of efficiency and effectiveness.
Artificial intelligence, which is a branch of computer science, make it possible to equip machines with computational systems able to perform human mind typical tasks.
In order to achieve the functionality of a brain, AI duplicates the main intellectual abilities of human beings such as understanding, learning or interacting.
Yet, despite these analogies, human intelligence and artificial intelligence remain different.
Learning algorithms can perform complex operations, but are not yet able to question themselves and to understand why they are performing these operations. Humans, on the contrary, ask questions, look for alternative options, and imagine possible scenarios. If both intelligences go through a rational approach, only human intelligence can be emotional, diversified, and influenced by the context in which it operates.
Humans’ choices, conversely, are inevitably conditioned by emotions that escape their control, and which, unlike for algorithms, are not quantifiable and measurable.
Brain and experience
The fundamental difference between humans and machines is consciousness. Every single human being has his own identity and a deep consciousness of his own existence. In a sense, even a smartphone has an identity that can be, for example, attributable to its serial number. Yet it is not aware of it and, more importantly, its identity can never be changed, it is immutable – conversely to human identity. Our sense of identity expresses who we are. From sexual identity to social identity, from cultural identity to religious identity, we have a set of unique characteristics that build our own image, which unlike for algorithms, are modifiable in time and in relation to experience.
The experiential dimension is crucial in the process of formation of the self since “the sense of identity always goes along with the situation” (Benasayag, 2016, p.141, author’s translation). Indeed, emotionally strong experiences, can reframe what we are. Through brain activities and experiences, humans gain knowledge, which participate to the construction of memory. Memory, whether short or long-term, is a cognitive activity inexorably connected to external factors. Whenever data enter into our brains, they are linked to experiences that can make the memorization process more or less effective. A positive experience can make acquired data more vivid, which make it easier to recall. Similarly, if the experience is negative, data might not be kept in memory or, in some cases, might be transformed to make the experience less painful.
The Turing Machine is not located, meaning that the place it occupies does not matter. It is not relevant to ask who is using it and with whom it is interacting.
The human brain, on the contrary, is located. It interacts with space and with experiences that influence actions. When live a relevant experience, positive or negative, the brain undergoes real modifications and updates its synapses, while a computer behavior changes neither radically with time, nor regarding experiences.
New form of enhancement
When one needs to buy a computer, the first thing considered is the technical features, such as processor speed or memory capacities. Then, these characteristics in hand it is possible to select the most efficient one. So performance is seen as key, and the desire to improve intelligence and performance is intrinsic to human nature. This will to increase intelligence is illustrated by the recourse to different methods, such as experience from which behavior is learned and modified, to clinical hypnosis through which a mental faculty is modified, or cognitive enhancement through the intake of substances, such as Ritalin, which allows to increase attention and improve storage processes. Nowadays, thanks to technology, pharmacological options are no longer the only alternative to increase brain performance.
Movements such as post-humanism and trans-humanism promote a completely renewed idea of humankind. New research programs such as the BCI (brain-computer interface) intend to modify our brain structures through technological hybridization.
This empowerment can be used in different settings depending on the used means.
Besides mind uploading and the strengthening of cognitive abilities, it is possible to identify other ways of empowerment such a as biological ones which involves highly technological prosthesis or bionic implants in order to upgrade human body performances. These implants make it possible to fit humans with artificial limbs which allows to perform natural moves, at greater speed or with bigger strength.
Human beings, through technological hybridization, could overcome body limitations imposed by nature. With mind uploading, it would thus be possible, for instance, to upload a human mind into a non-biological system, thus transferring our thoughts and our brain activities.
Machines capabilities have become comparison reference, and we are now expect that our brain could reach the algorithmic state of computers to process as much information as possible, and not stumble into inefficient emotional situations that could compromise foreseen outcomes.
These new forms of enhancement open the way to unprecedented philosophical and ethical questions.
At the end of the day, the digital has invaded our societies and changed our lives and moral sense, altering our social models and experiences.
The advent of technology offers intelligent systems that are more and more sophisticated, making imperceptible the difference between humans and machines.
The digitalized environment in which we live, allows us to enhance our bodies or to use software in order to perform highly complex operations. However, the ongoing hybridization with machines, should not damage the role of humans within the world system.
The difference between human intelligence and artificial intelligence still exists. Algorithms learn and elaborate informations but is, unlike humans, unable to use knowingly what they have learned. Algorithms perform their tasks outside of the emotional sphere which makes humans experience unique.
G. ANDERS, Die Antiquiertheit des Menschenare I, Über die Seele im Zeitalter der zweiten industriellen Revolution, Verlag C.H. Beck, München 1956
M. BENASAYAG, Il cervello aumentato, l’uomo diminuito, Erickson, Trento, 2016
M. DI FRANCESCO, Introduzione alla filosofia della mente, Carocci, Roma, 2015
L. FLORIDI, La Quarta Rivoluzione, Raffello-Cortina Editore, Milano, 2017
S. SORCE, Algoritmi, Corso di Elaborazione di Immagini e Suoni/ Riconoscimento e Visioni
Artificiali, Anno Accademico 2008/2009, Università degli Studi di Palermo, p. 5.
To quote this paper
Francesca Quaratino, « Brain contextualized, algorithms decontextualized », L’Analyse du Creéia, No. 2, juin|June 2020.